My doomed love affair with Cary Grant – by Sophia Loren: The passion filled memoirs of one of the greatest sex symbols ever

The first Hollywood star I ever met was Cary Grant. I was just 22, an insecure and unknown Italian actress. Yet I was about to make a movie with the 52-year-old living legend.

At that time, I was already romantically and professionally involved with the Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, who was 22 years older than me.

Carlo had found out that Stanley Kramer, the producer of High Noon, was shooting a film in Spain called The Pride And The Passion, about the Napoleonic wars. Marlon Brando and Ava Gardner had been lined up to star in it, but Marlon had backed out and been replaced by Frank Sinatra.

Unfortunately Frank and Ava, who had married in 1951, had just split up. In other words, it was the usual Hollywood mess. The only certainty was that Cary Grant would also be starring in The Pride And The Passion.

When Sophia Loren (pictured) first met Cary Grant, his elegance took her breath away
When Sophia Loren (pictured) first met Cary Grant, his elegance took her breath away

In April 1956, I faced my first big challenge: a huge cocktail party in Madrid, where I was going to meet the Press and finally be introduced to Frank and Cary.

I’d never felt so nervous in my life — my legs were shaking. At least the living legends gave me all the time I needed to prepare myself. Cary showed up two hours late; Frank nearly four.

When I finally saw Cary’s unmistakable profile at the door, I thought I’d faint. His tuxedo with the shiny lapels, his slightly greying hair, his elegance took my breath away. He looked as though he’d just stepped down from the screen: a dream come true.

He held out his hand, looking at me with a pinch of mischief: ‘Miss Lolloloren, I presume? Or is it Miss Lorenigida? You Italians have such strange last names, I can’t seem to get them straight.’

It was a good line because, at the time, everyone was talking about my (non-existent) rivalry with the Italian star Gina Lollobrigida. But I was very annoyed and embarrassed. ‘I can’t stand this guy,’ I thought to myself.

All the same, I was overcome by the urge to laugh — so I did. And I found myself eye to eye with Cary, taking in the way he bent his head to one side as he looked at me with intelligent attention.

In fact, that first meeting was the start of a special partnership. Over the following six months, I’d get to know him, to appreciate his sense of humour — and to learn how to make him smile.

Sinatra was delightful: kind-hearted and fun-loving, even though he was still in pain over Ava, so not exactly in the best of moods. He joked around a lot, but inside he was suffering.

Sometimes he’d teach me obscene expressions, telling me they were elegant phrases — and my newly-acquired grasp of English was often too shaky for me to know he was teasing me.

In his dressing room, he had a huge collection of classical music, but he also introduced me to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, who he believed was the greatest singer of all time.

He was irascible and generous, unpredictable and sincere, and he kept me company a lot of the time. But it was the much more reserved Cary who won me over — with his good manners and his zest for life.

The first time he invited me out to dinner, I thought I hadn’t understood correctly, so I asked: ‘You and me? Out for dinner? Are you sure?’

‘Yes, darling, you and me, out for dinner.’

He’d bought a flaming red MG, in which he raced me round the gently rolling Spanish countryside. Our first evening together was magical, and we ended up chatting like old friends.

‘Hollywood is a simple fairy tale; if you understand that, you’ll never get hurt,’ he told me.

I was charmed by his dry wit, his wisdom, his affectionate manner, his experience. We started spending more and more time together.

At 52, Cary appeared to have everything, but I learned that he’d suffered a lot.

Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, pictured together in a shot from the 1958 film Houseboat
Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, pictured together in a shot from the 1958 film Houseboat

His older brother, he said, had died when he was still a child and his mother had never recovered from his death, slowly slipping into madness.

‘One day — I must have been about ten — I got home and she wasn’t there,’ Cary said. ‘Father told me she’d died, but the truth is he’d had her put away in an asylum. I only found out years later.

‘[Father] sent me to an excellent boarding school, but I wasn’t really interested in studying. What I wanted was a family.’

He found one in a company of acrobats directed by a man named Bob Pender. Having run away from school, Cary travelled around England with him, learning the arts of the circus and vaudeville, and finally ending up in New York.

He worked on Broadway, cleaned up his blue-collar Bristol accent — just as I’d done with my Neapolitan accent — and pitched up in Hollywood. That’s when he changed his name from Archie Leach to Cary Grant.

Both of us soon realised that the feelings between us were beginning to be laced with love — and we were scared.

I was still very much involved with Carlo. Admittedly, the situation wasn’t ideal: on paper, he was still married [divorce was then illegal in Italy] and it wasn’t clear when we’d be able to live together in broad daylight, let alone plan a wedding.

And Cary was married to Betsy Drake, his third wife, who came and went from the set, though their relationship had been faltering for a long time.

Meanwhile, he lavished his attentions on me. We’d have dinner in small family-run restaurants on the Ávila hills, sipping red wine and listening to flamenco. Sometimes, we’d talk about our dreams, about a home and a person with whom to laugh and share one’s life.

‘What kind of house would you like?’ he’d ask. ‘Do you care for dogs? What names would you choose for your child?’

Sophia Loren, pictured during a photoshoot in her home in Naples, 1952
Sophia Loren, pictured during a photoshoot in her home in Naples, 1952

I was charmed, but I always held back. I didn’t want to raise his hopes.

As shooting drew to a close, the situation between us showed no sign of being resolved. I was more and more muddled — torn between two men and two worlds. I knew that my place was next to Carlo — he was my safe harbour, even though I was still waiting for him to make a decision about our lives; our furtive relationship couldn’t go on much longer.

At the same time, it was hard to resist the magnetism of a man like Cary, who said he was willing to give up everything for me. On our last night, he invited me out, looking more solemn than usual. Inside, I was afraid.

There was a gorgeous sunset outside as he turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said simply: ‘Will you marry me?’ My words got caught in my throat. I was like an actress in a movie who’s forgotten her lines.

I felt so small in the face of this impossible decision. ‘Cary, dear, I need time,’ I whispered breathlessly.

He understood. And he deflected my reply with a light touch of humour: ‘Why don’t we get married first, and then think about it?’ The next morning, I left for Greece, to shoot the movie Boy On A Dolphin.

When I arrived in Athens, I found a bunch of roses and a pale blue note in my hotel room. ‘Forgive me, dear girl — I press you too much. Pray — and so will I . . . Goodbye Sophia, Cary.’ I didn’t see him again until the following year when I flew for the first time to Los Angeles.

I made a movie with Anthony Perkins — a gentle, polite and somewhat sullen young man — then finished shooting the last scenes of The Pride And The Passion. And I started seeing Cary again.

He hadn’t given up on us. Heedless of the fact that Carlo was around, he’d call and write and send me a big bouquet of roses every day.

Was Carlo upset? He never said anything. As for me, I was slightly embarrassed. But I was simply waiting for something final to happen: we couldn’t possibly go on as we were.

Loren pictured during the 1964 Cannes Film Festival
Loren pictured during the 1964 Cannes Film Festival

After a holiday with Carlo at Lake Lucerne I returned to the U.S. and waiting for me at the station in Washington D.C. was Cary. We were about to make Houseboat together, a sophisticated comedy written specially for him. But the magic of our time together in Spain had ended. We were finally at a standstill. In a treasure trove of memories that I keep in a box, there are letters and notes in Cary’s elegant, joyful handwriting that still fill me with tenderness: they speak to me of a fondness that, although it changed over time, never waned.

This is just one of them: ‘If you can, and care to, have someone leave a note for me at the desk — a few words — any words. I need something from you today as all days — (perhaps it should be a punch in the nose, but a note bringing your love would please me more) . . .

‘If you think and pray with me, for the same things and purpose, all will be right and life will be good. PS: If this note means as much to you as yours do to me, I shall be glad I’ve written it.’

Two days before the shooting of Houseboat ended, Carlo and I were sitting on our hotel balcony reading the newspaper.

We happened to see a piece announcing that our marriage by proxy had taken place in Mexico the day before. I almost fell off my chair. [By this point, Carlo had obtained a Mexican divorce from his first wife, by whom he had two children. This, however, was not recognised in Italy. Desperate to marry Sophia, he’d asked his lawyers to scour the globe for a solution.]

Even Carlo was taken by surprise. The lawyers had evidently arranged this marriage by proxy without his knowledge.

It certainly wasn’t the kind of marriage I’d dreamed of, but it seemed to be the best we could do. That night, we dined by candlelight.

On set the next day, Cary — who was slightly dazed — reacted in a truly gentlemanly way: ‘All the best, Sophia. I hope you’ll be happy.’

Then, Cary and I got married in front of the movie cameras — Cary wearing a gardenia in his buttonhole; I in a white-lace wedding gown.

A month later, Carlo and I left for London, where I was due to start shooting The Key. It was on the plane that he finally showed what he’d felt about the past few

trying months. I remember smiling at him then I started leafing through the in-flight magazine.

I was just starting to relax when I let an innocent comment slip. Or maybe it wasn’t that innocent.

‘Cary sent me a bunch of yellow roses before I left. Yellow for jealousy? He’s so adorable . . .’

Carlo suddenly slapped me in the face. In front of everyone.

My face turned bright red with anger and shame. His fingertips had left a white impression on my cheek, which was stinging. I felt tears falling. I wanted to die, but inside I knew that I’d somehow deserved this. At the same time, I didn’t regret what I’d said.

When you’re 23, you’re still learning how to live. And Cary’s love had given me so much — maybe even the courage to fight for a normal life with Carlo.Sophia Loren (pictured) started her acting career at age 14 and went on to international acclaim+6

Sophia Loren (pictured) started her acting career at age 14 and went on to international acclaim

On the other hand, I wasn’t stupid. I knew that Carlo’s slap — and this may be hard to understand today — was the gesture of a man in love who’d seen his love threatened by another man. He’d risked losing me and was only now getting over his fear and hurt.

I wept — but not for long because the plane was full.

The flight attendant came over to me, asking if I needed anything. I didn’t know where to look, but in my heart of hearts I was content. This was the confirmation I’d been seeking for a long time: Carlo loved me. I’d made my choice, and it was the right one.

There was, however, a surreal postscript. Although Carlo’s first marriage had ended a long time ago, the Italian authorities charged him with bigamy because they wouldn’t recognise the Mexican divorce.

He faced a five-year sentence, while I faced a lesser one for being a ‘concubine’.

We decided to return to Italy while our case went through an appeal process. We tried never to be seen in public together and avoided people’s gazes.

Meanwhile, notices went up on church doors that forbade the faithful to see my movies and invited them to pray for our sinful souls.

The real irony was that Carlo’s ex-wife, Giuliana, who was a lawyer, also wanted her freedom.

And, in the end, she was the one who found a solution: we could legally divorce and marry if we all became French citizens.

So that’s why, in 1964, we moved to Paris and all three of us became temporarily French. About a year later, on April 9, 1966, Carlo and I had a quiet wedding in a Paris suburb.

I’d been waiting so long for this day that I had difficulty believing it was actually happening. After the ring was placed on my finger, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop.

Jayne Mansfield, my rival with loads of front

The first big event I attended in Hollywood was a cocktail party at Romanoff’s, a famous Beverly Hills restaurant. Everyone was there. I was the phenomenon of the moment, the person everyone wanted to meet.Sizing up the opposition: The famous photo of Loren and Mansfield at a cocktail party in Romanoff's restaurant, Hollywood+6

Sizing up the opposition: The famous photo of Loren and Mansfield at a cocktail party in Romanoff’s restaurant, Hollywood

There was Gary Cooper — so handsome he left me breathless — and Barbara Stanwyck, smiling; and if I looked out of the window, I could see Fred Astaire chatting with Gene Kelly. Mamma mia!

At that moment, Jayne Mansfield arrived. The crowd parted to let her through as she headed straight for my table. She was swaying on her heels, perhaps not completely sober, and there was something grand and imperious about each step she took. She knew that everyone had their eyes on her; after all, how could anyone fail to gape at her low neckline?

When she sat down next to me and started talking, it was like a volcano erupting. As she got more and more worked up, I suddenly found one of her breasts in my plate.

I looked up at her, terrified. She barely noticed, and left soon afterwards.

Someone had taken a picture of us together, and the image subsequently went around the world.

I refused to autograph copies of it. Hollywood’s enchanted kingdom had its coarse and grotesque side, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.0

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